12 November 2005

New York and the (sort of) Return of The Potatomen

When did I last have a bad time in New York? It was probably way back in 1973 when I got my head bashed in by muggers and nearly bled to death on the sidewalk at E. 10th Street and 3rd Avenue.

There were probably a few other less than happy moments in the 80s and 90s, having more to do with ruffled feelings or business dealings gone wrong than life-threatening violence, but at the moment I can’t recall any specific details, so they couldn’t have been too awful. But of my 21st Century New York adventures – and there have been a lot – every single one has been fabulous.

Not always in the same ways. Last summer, for example, the highlights were fairly prosaic, mostly hanging out with friends and baking in the 90-plus degree heat that enabled me to come back to dismal, grey London with a suntan that lasted into October. Topping up that tan was the last thing on my mind when I came back to celebrate my birthday (Oct. 28) and Halloween, especially when I arrived in the middle of the first real cold snap of the season, and spent the next three days wrapped up in my winter jacket trying to keep warm.

But it warmed up on Halloween, and kept getting warmer, so there I was, several days into November, sprawled out on the banks of the Hudson with a few thousand other sun-worshippers, getting nearly as brown as I was last August, even as the leaves changed color and drifted down around me every time the breeze stirred slightly. Because the sun, well on its way toward the winter solstice, hung so low in the sky, the river was one of the few places where you could escape the shadows that hung over most city streets, and even then, three or four hours of sunshine was the best you could hope to wring out of the day, but that only made it more precious, the way, like an unexpected revival of a nonetheless doomed love affair: you savor every last moment with similar measures of delight and desperation.

On my last full day in New York, a storm front blew up over Jersey City; at about 3:30 in the afternoon one of its advancing tendrils abruptly reached out in front of the sun. The darkness that descended was palpable, and as if the earth herself were shuddering, a chilly breeze rose up from somewhere and hundreds of thousands of leaves cascaded to the ground with a sigh of mass resignation. The sunbathers rose almost as one, dressed themselves, and walked off with a newfound sense of purpose toward what would soon be the canyons of winter. Day after day we had lain there in sun-kissed lethargy and dream-ridden indolence; in an instant it was gone, and, barring a miracle, would not return for what was already looking like a small eternity.

Never mind that; who goes to New York to sunbathe anyway? I did do a few other things besides flop around in the sun. On Oct. 26 I got to see Dr. Frank, doing a reading (and a musical performance) from his soon-to-be-published novel, King Dork. It’s about a preternaturally intelligent but socially dysfunctional teenager who spends or misspends (I can’t say for sure yet, since I’ve only read excerpts) his adolescence in an ongoing attempt to be in a rock and roll band. Because the kid is constantly writing songs for his bands to sing, Dr. Frank has the opportunity to put his own songwriting talents to work creating real-life versions of the songs, and in addition to reading a chapter called “The Lord Rocks In Mysterious Ways,” Frank sang four of them.

Three nights later, it was my own turn to do some singing. Astoria scenester Chadd Derkins had put together a eight-band punk rock cover show at Williamsburg bar The Charleston, and somehow I had gotten roped (well, they didn’t have to do too much roping) into being part of a band covering my own band, the Potatomen. It got even stranger when we recruited Michael Silverberg, a member of the last (or at least most recent) incarnation of the Potatomen, to play bass.

So essentially, half the Potatomen were in a band covering the Potatomen, if that makes sense. Never mind, it probably doesn’t, but we did it anyway. Along with Michael, three other New Yorkers, Oliver, Jesse and Grath, set about learning the songs before I arrived in town. Then we had time for one practice together, at which Oliver’s ex-girlfriend, Tina, who’d never even heard the Potatomen before, decided we needed a backup singer (and she was right). She took home a CD of the songs and learned them all overnight.

The show was on Saturday, the 29th of October, and try as I might not to be, I was a little nervous. It felt strange to be playing Potatomen songs without my genius guitarist and co-songwriter Patrick Hynes, and almost as strange to be on stage with a band again, for the first time in over four years. It shouldn’t matter, I kept telling myself; most of the bands had only had one or two practices to learn their songs, and one band, The Tattletales, hadn’t practiced at all, relying solely on singer-guitarist Christian’s musical ability to masterfully blast through a set of Kerplunk-era Green Day covers.

Chadd’s own band the Slaughterhouse 4, covered the Misfits, New Jersey’s Hot Cops did Screeching Weasel, and a hastily-thrown-together gaggle of glamorous girls went on as the So-So’s, doing more than ample justice to, of course, the Go-Go’s. For me that was the highlight of the night; it had the same excitement and energy as when I first saw the real Go-Go’s at the Mabuhay around 1979.

Other bands covered Andrew WK and NO FX, and by now you might be getting the same idea that I was getting as the night wore on: everyone else was covering famous bands, while we were getting ready to cover a band that half or more of the audience had never even heard of. Despite that, Chadd had decided to put us near the top of the bill, and as time for us to play approached, I began searching for reasons why we couldn’t. Minutes before we were supposed to go on, Michael still hadn’t arrived, so I figured I could use him as an excuse for canceling, but he strolled in just as our turn arrived, and so did my beautiful niece, comic artist Gabrielle Bell, so I reckoned I’d have to go through with it.

Well, it wasn’t so bad at all. We didn’t have as big an audience as some of the other bands, but the audience we did have was really into it, and even if there’d been no audience at all, it was an incredible feeling to be on stage and singing those songs again. The band played almost perfectly, and despite the PA system being atrocious and the drums falling apart mid-set, I had a ball. Because we hadn’t had time to learn more than half a dozen Potatomen songs, we augmented our set with a ferocious cover of Screeching Weasel’s “What We Hate” and The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” which of course was also a Potatomen cover back in the day. The only thing missing from our set was NWA’s “Gangsta,” which we’d rehearsed but which Michael had effectively nixed by saying, “You can play it if you want, but you won’t have a bass player.”

Jonnie Whoa Oh, of Whoa Oh Records, took many, many pictures, all 238 of which can be seen here. The Faux-tatomen are about midway through the slideshow.

Anyway, enough about New York and the Potatomen; it all seems so very long ago now that I’m on the other side of the country, in a semi-warm and semi-sunny Berkeley. My second day here, I got to see Dr. Frank again, playing a solo show at the Bottom of the Hill, along with Kevin Army (producer of many of the early Lookout Records classics, who’s been doing a singer-songwriter thing for a few years now, and Specs, an acoustic drum and guitar duo featuring Jym, longtime drummer for MTX.

There’s lots more I could say about Berkeley, but for now I’ll confine myself to mentioning the homeless guy pushing a shopping cart adorned with an American flag and a “Viva Bush” sign. The first time I saw him, I figured it was supposed to be ironic, but this morning I saw him again, shouting at a bunch of other homeless guys: “If it wasn’t for the liberals, you bums wouldn’t be allowed to walk the streets!”


kendra said...

the "viva bush" guy is awesome. it's hard to tell if he's serious or just being obnoxious.

Tim said...

Laughed Till I Cried easily fits into my top ten favorite songs of all time.

The Potatomen have a bunch of other great songs, but that one...goddamn. It's just about perfect.

crystal said...

So-so's 4 life!